China's best educated young people consider the achievement of communism remote from their lives and not their nation's most important goal at present, according to a recently published survey.

If the survey is accurate, most Chinese university students strongly support China's economic modernization drive but consider the effort more a means of improving living standards and China's position vis-a-vis other nations than a way to lay the foundation for communism.

Findings from the survey conducted last June at more than 10 Chinese universities are described in the February issue of the bimonthly sociology journal Society, published by the University of Shanghai. According to the journal, the findings are based on responses to multiple-choice questions from more than 300 students majoring in both technical and liberal arts fields.

The students' universities include several considered the most prestigious in China, including Peking University and Fudan University in Shanghai.

These students are clearly one of China's elite groups. According to a recent article in China Daily, an English-language publication, only about 4 percent of the country's high school graduates go to a university.

China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, has tried to restore credibility and professionalism to the nation's higher education system, which was virtually dismantled during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. With Deng and his colleagues now placing more emphasis on appointing people with educational credentials to key positions, the views of university students have become more important than before. Without the support of these leaders of tomorrow, economic modernization might be difficult to achieve.

According to the survey, most university students are open to ideas conveyed through western modern drama, painting, music and dance. Asked what they thought of modern types of art, such as impressionism, surrealism, modern dance, electronic music and the theater of the absurd, 41 percent of those who replied said these art forms offered "food for thought." An additional 27.2 percent said they were "profound."

Only 8.1 percent agreed with the assertion that such works are "simply wild." Only 2.9 percent said they were unable to appreciate modern art.

Nearly 70 percent of those polled agreed that China's current economic reforms are "fundamental measures on which the destiny of the country hinges."

At the same time, a sizable 26.4 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "there are various kinds of resistance to the reforms" and that the reforms had produced very little in the way of results.

Asked "what is the main problem modernization should solve?" 58.3 percent of the students replying said modernization should be used to raise living standards. Another 32.5 percent said modernization should be a means of strengthening China and making it less vulnerable to bullying. Only 6.4 percent of the students agreed that modernization ought to envisage a political ideal -- "to lay down the material foundation for communism" -- as its main task.

Concerning an improvement in living standards, more than 47 percent of those replying to the poll agreed that such an improvement meant gaining more free time. More than 27 percent agreed with the proposition that higher living standards meant "enjoyment and contentment, which constitute the goal of life."

When asked "What aspect of society in the future do you think has something to do with your life?" 35.2 percent of those responding said the growth of the society's material wealth related directly to their lives. About 32 percent said "the comprehensive development of man's independent character" was what counted most for them. Only 10 percent said the development of socialist morality and ethics was the aspect of society most important to them. Even fewer, 2.6 percent, found that "the ideal state of communism" related to their lives.

In looking to the future, 44.3 percent wanted to continue demanding improvements in their material and cultural lives. Thirty-nine percent expressed patriotism by agreeing that they should "grasp global trends, understand where the real strength of the oriental world lies, and inherit, criticize and surpass western industrial civilization."

But few students seem to want to enter two fields that ought to be vital to the modernization drive -- teaching and government administration. Only 7.5 percent of those responding said they wanted to enter teaching. Even fewer -- 4.6 percent -- said they wanted to become administrative personnel. Both teaching and government administrative work are among the lowest paid professions.

On March 30, the People's Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, took note of this problem. In a front-page editorial entitled "The Last to Get Rich," the paper said government and Communist Party workers should not be concerned that they earn less than farmers and workers who benefit from the economic reforms.

"As we are fighting to realize communism, it is glorious to be the last to get rich," said the editorial.

But it is clear from the recent survey that few university students would share that austere point of view.

The country's top leaders are clearly aware that they face a problem. They have openly spoken of a "crisis of confidence" among China's youth.